16 October 1999

COULD new markets and new crops be the saviour of grain growers who are now experiencing prices at an all-time low? Chemicals in some of our most familiar crops as well as novel crops could offer financial opportunities, but until now their markets have been undeveloped, according to speakers at the IENICA speciality chemicals conference in Valbonne, France.

Todays commonly grown crops offer natural cosmetic, fuel and medicinal opportunities. Talcum powder from oats and biodiesel from rape are prime examples. Glucosinolates extracted from rape could return as a promising new market. Breeders have spent the last 15 years ridding oilseed rape of glucosinolates because of their anti-nutritional properties in animal feed. But several research projects indicate that glucosinolates prevent tumor formation, reducing the risk of cancer, in particular of the colon and rectum.

Much of the production of speciality crops is concentrated in areas of the world where labour is cheap, or growing on a large scale makes savings, such as India, Chile and Australia. Europes essential oil production is concentrated in France and Spain, with 30,000ha and 20,000ha respectively. Other states lag behind; the UK for example produces just 2,000ha.

The UK market for speciality crops such as lavender is organised to supply local tourist markets, often with on-farm processing to the end-product. Help is at hand, however; several UK companies are establishing markets to exploit a whole gamut of plant-produced chemicals.

Developing such markets can be costly. "First we have to understand exactly what the customer needs. Then we identify the best plant source, and further on we look at patents and develop the market," says Kings commercial director Stewart Green.

The main problem is huge variability in the amount of chemical produced by different populations of the same plant species. This quality variability has dogged world production: pharmaceutical companies have tended to drop naturally produced chemicals the moment they can be synthesised artificially, more efficiently.

Keeping buyers confidence means growers must use plants of a stock known to produce high concentrations, says Mr Green. "The risk of contaminants also means identity preserved production is important," he adds.

Dialogue

Its essential that quality parameters are established between grower and buyer. "We need to develop a new dialogue between agriculture and industry to find a common language. Biodiesel, for example, made little progress until Mercedes-Benz brought out a specification everyone could understand," explains Dr Melvyn Askew of the Central Science Laboratory in York.

The markets are still small and potential growers should secure a buy-back contract before the crop is in the ground, says Mr Green. Only those with a long-term outlook need apply; in a difficult year like this growers can be tempted to concentrate efforts on mainstream crops, neglecting relatively small acreages of new crops, he adds. "We have seen variable performances with borage this year where some growers have not given it the attention it deserves."

Theres also an economic barrier to entry: not all crops are eligible for subsidies. "For example, camelina requires £120/t premium to be attractive to growers. There are peaks and troughs so people shouldnt come in to make a quick buck – they have to have a genuine desire to get involved with novel crops," says Mr Green.

But the possibilities are seemingly endless. The plethora of non-food product opportunities includes medicines, health supplements, fuel, clothing, cosmetics, dyes, paper and perfumes. Areas with huge growth potential include cosmetics and neutraceuticals.

NEUTRACEUTICALS

This part of the food and diet ingredients industry is worth US$35bn in Europe, the USA and Japan – and its growing at 20% a year. Neutraceuticals means any part of food that gives health benefits beyond simple nutrition – usually in the form of health food supplements.

1: Glucosinolates

Oilseed rape

Glucosinolates have been shown to inhibit cancerous cell growth. Some broccoli products are now on the market, but more research is needed into the effects of pure glucosinolates. While they do trigger the body to produce enzymes which can remove toxins, too many enzymes can themselves become toxic.

2: Gamma linoleic acid (GLA)

Borage and evening primrose

Humans produce gamma linoleic acid naturally. It is involved in nerve cell signalling and inflammation, but it can be in short supply. The bodys own production can be inhibited by alcohol, saturated fats, ageing and diseases such as eczema and diabetes. Sometimes a fast metabolism – or tumorous growth with rapid cell division – simply means excess consumption leading to shortage, says Dr Peter Lapinskas, freelance new crops consultant.

GLA from evening primrose and borage is now well-known and widely available as a neutraceutical. So far chemists have had problems synthesising GLA – good news for growers. As part of a Scotia Pharmaceuticals team, Dr Lapinskas helped run breeding programmes for both borage and evening primrose spanning 25 years, beginning in 1975.

They began with evening primrose, which has a simpler oil profile than borage. However, when the market demanded concentrated GLA they turned to borage which contains more, and followed the same breeding programme. Yields for both evening primrose and borage were bolstered by improving seed retention over their extended flowering periods.

The researchers also managed to produce annual evening primrose – cutting production time in half for what is usually a biennial plant. Disease resistant strains were another target. "We produced plants which were resistant to the main disease, Septoria oenotheraea, which can be devastating," he says.

But not every story has a happy ending. Clinical trials of GLA on the effects of diabetes and radiotherapy were rejected because of insufficient proof, and Scotia Pharmaceuticals had to sell its interests in the area.

Such a blow leads Dr Lapinskas to favour pharmaceutical products from GM crops. "In future I would not try to domesticate a new species; I would take the gene and put it into a domestic crop – it can be done in three years instead of 10-20. In the pharmaceutical sector if you have a life-threatening disease you dont care where the treatment comes from," he says.

3: Edible vaccines

A little way off, but this way out idea could mean affordable vaccines for all. Making vaccination as simple as eating a salad or a banana, edible vaccines are the dream of the vaccinologist, says Dr Ignacio Casal of Immunologia y Genetica Applicada, Spain. There are two approaches to modifying a plant to produce a vaccine: use GM plants, or use plant viruses as carriers. Plant virus particles are stable at high temperatures and survive exposure to acid and digestive enzymes, he says.

Dr Casal used cowpea mosaic virus to demonstrate this concept, producing vaccines for mink enteritis and parvovirus.

COSMETICS AND DETERGENTS

Hemp, quinoa, sunflowers, oilseed rape, soya

Fats and oils from plants are non-toxic and non-irritating, ideal for use involving contact with skin. Consumers are becoming more and more biased towards natural products, says Dr Aran Puri, consultant to the cosmetic industry. "Nine out of 10 people now say the presence of a natural material would influence their choice of a cosmetic," says Dr Puri.

Natural fats in cosmetics got off to a slow start because the unique benefits which justify their high cost werent promoted to the consumer, he explains. But natural oils are wonderful carriers of vitamins. "Cosmaceuticals are products of the future, designed not just to protect but to give positive benefits to the skin."

Oil and fat derivatives such as glycerin are widely used in cosmetics. Glycerin, for example, soaks up water in the atmosphere, preventing creams – including toothpaste – from drying out. Other uses for derivatives include emulsifiers and stabilisers in cosmetics, and detergents, food, and feed.

PERFUMES

1: Aromatics

Fragrant plants have glands on their leaves which produce essential oils. These can be used to cure bacterial, fungal and viral infections, and as antioxidants and antifeedants.

2: Fragrances

Lavender, valerian, and spearmint

Essential oils are complex mixtures of different oils, so they are difficult to copy synthetically. This preserves the market for natural oil, says Dr Ray Marriott, managing director of English Hop Products.

There are two kinds of lavender oil: from lavender, and from sterile hybrid lavandin. Although lavender yields less than lavandin, its oil is less pungent and is used in perfumes, commanding four to five times the price of lavandin oil. Lavandin oil is used in fragrances for household products, and has to compete on price with synthetically produced oil. The French dominate the market, but both types are grown in the UK.

DYES

Woad

Industrial extraction of blue dye from woad developed when Napolean needed it for army uniforms. Natural dyes fell out of favour with the advent of synthetic fibres but theres now a resurgence of interest. France produces yellow dye from weld, pink from madder and blue from woad. Researchers at Long Ashton near Bristol have been developing woad varieties; Gorham and Bateson is investigating its potential for UK growers.

Imagine growing a cancer cure.

Lucy Stephenson reports from France, where delegates hear that growing crops is not all beer and bread.

Plants